CABLE Magazine: The Meteoric Rise of International Affairs from a Scottish Perspective

It was way back in July this year we stumbled upon CABLE Magazine. The day before the release of its second issue in August (CABLE publishes the 1st of every month). CABLE took us by surprise, mainly because international affairs until then was a dry affair, perpetuated by mainstream media organisations and even more mainstream outlooks (or so we thought).

CABLE blew that opinion straight out of the water like a bouncing bomb came forth a publication that looked at the world through resilient and no-nonsense Scottish eyes. Oh! How we’ve needed it! So, after initially writing about how the Pussy Riot of current affairs was something you just had to read we were lucky enough to ask John MacDonald, CABLE Magazine’s editor about how it all began. This is what he said:

How did the idea of CABLE Magazine come about? Tell us the start-up story!

I brought the idea of CABLE to the table in November 2016. We had been working hard with the Scottish Global Forum (SGF) throughout 2016, doing more consultancy work. That kind of work naturally stopped us from publishing so much in the public sphere so I thought of ways in which we could continue doing much of what SGF had done previously (analysing Scotland’s place in international affairs and examining how Scotland might do more as an international actor), but in a more publicly accessible and a more regular manner.

So my colleagues and I discussed the possibility of developing a regular international affairs magazine, one which analysed global events but which tried – where appropriate – to illuminate issues of significance to Scotland, and examined how Scotland’s own international activity might be enhanced.

There were a few strong drivers for this idea.

First, Scotland must be rare among the developed  nations in not actually having its own dedicated international affairs publication. For such a strongly political nation, that’s a curious thing. Like all nations, Scotland is impacted by international affairs. Scots are interested in these issues and how Scotland is affected. On issues such as climate change, refugee policy and EU membership, there is clearly a distinctive Scottish approach within the UK – this should be illuminated. So it seems to me that there’s a clear rationale for giving Scotland something which exists in many – most – other nations: a quality publication dedicated to highlighting not only the big issues in international affairs but also how those issues pertain to your own country.

Second, it’s important to acknowledge that the current Scottish government has expanded greatly Scotland’s international affairs portfolio – yet I think this has gone almost unnoticed in Scotland. There needs to be a public platform for critiquing what Scotland does as an international actor. That need is seen to exist where all other policy areas are concerned: why not international affairs?

There are new issues for the Scottish government to deal with such as Brexit (and what follows it), developments in the High North where Scotland is widely seen to have a role to play. There are also areas where Scotland has been invited to get more involved, such as conflict resolution and climate change. Can anyone seriously say that these developments are not worthy of coverage? Just as worthy of analysis is how the Scottish government engages with these issues.

But there are also issues within a UK context which have a specific resonance for Scotland. Aside from Brexit! For example, the Royal Navy intends moving its entire submarine fleet to Faslane by 2022. That is significant in security terms; but it may also have environmental implications given the problems we know there have been with the Navy’s subs in the past.

After Brexit, we’re going to see a realignment in offshore fisheries, an industry which Scotland has a disproportionate interest in within the UK. If we are to resort to defending exclusive zones of our waters from fishing vessels of other nations, how does that effect fisheries protection around Scotland, which has some of the richest seas in the EU? And where will Scotland fit into international or regional discussions on fisheries policy after Brexit? These are issues which may not be of special interest to people elsewhere in the UK but they will be to people living in Scotland.

Third, there’s a huge amount of internationally focused NGO activity coming out of Scotland which really does deserve to be highlighted. The nature and scale of this activity would probably surprise many Scots. Again, this activity deserves to be illuminated  for the Scottish public so that they are aware of how much strong international work is coming out of Scotland.

Lastly, Scotland’s parliamentarians are involved in all kinds of internationally focused activities and projects, both at Holyrood and Westminster. We’ve been lucky enough to have contributions from some of them since July and they have made perfectly clear that Scotland’s political representatives are heavily involved in international affairs. There should be a publication which is able to analyse what they’re doing but also – where appropriate – which gives them a public platform to discuss what the’re involved in. It’s good to know also that much of this activity is cross-party – we should welcome this as much  as possible in these politically restive times.

So, these ideas were the driving force for developing CABLE. We had months of meetings, spoke to dozens of people and organisations. We had a clear sense that there was a strong appetite for what we were wanting to do – it was a huge encouragement for us. We are lucky to have a wide network of contacts in academia, the media, business, the policy-making world and the arts, who said they’d write for us and spread the word.  Without any financial backing, this was pivotal. Without them, CABLE would not have come into being.  We still don’t have financial backing but we’re working on that now and we hope that our efforts will yield success.

How did you recruit the CABLE team?

The CABLE team is small and everyone involved does a variety of tasks. Putting out CABLE every month is a full-time occupation and it’s really hard work. Most of the people involved I worked with previously, through the Scottish Global Forum. David Pratt is a Contributing Editor at CABLE. I’ve known him for some years now – he is also deputy director of the Scottish Global Forum (I am director). David needs no introduction to anyone who is interested in international affairs: he’s reported from all over the world, is highly respected, and he shares the view that Scotland needs to enhance its engagement with international affairs, have a more informed dialogue of Scotland’s place in the world. It goes without saying that he’s a very strong and positive influence in the CABLE project.

Lindsay MacKenzie is a great writer and a really sharp observer of the European security scene. He began publishing work through SGF and he has had a big say in the style and approach of CABLE. As has Lindsay Hastings, who also worked with us for SGF. Lindsay now runs the 7 Questions feature which has been very popular. Lyndsey Croal has emerged as an invaluable member of the team – she is multi-talented and has a great strategic understanding of what CABLE needs to do to move forward. And my old colleague from the University of Dundee, Norrie MacQueen, writes for CABLE and also gives very sound editorial advice.  Norrie is also a Contributing Editor to CABLE and I’m very glad of the chance to work with him again.

Our challenge now is to move CABLE to a position where we can start paying colleagues for their efforts, and also start paying journalists for their contributions. The way we are working now is simply not sustainable – we have to start getting revenue in. It’s only fair to the talented people who work with us. It’s also required if CABLE is to survive and grow as a publication.

Is there a specific ethos behind CABLE Magazine – what are other international affairs outlets lacking?

It’d be arrogant to suggest that we at CABLE have an ethos which is lacking in other publications. Indeed, our ethos probably mirrors that of every other publication in existence: we want to be excellent and to have that excellence acknowledged by gathering a faithful readership to us. That is what we are pursuing: excellence. We have some way to go to reach the standards we think we can achieve but we are 4 months old and have done a fairly good job so far. Especially when you consider that we have next-to-no budget.

Another aspect of our ethos is the recognition that Scotland needs a publication which is willing and able to illuminate Scotland’s place in the world.  That acknowledgement is fundamental – everyone involved with CABLE gets it. Scotland is impacted by international events. And we do a lot as a nation, internationally. This needs to be more widely acknowledged, certainly in Scotland.

Since we launched CABLE in July 2017, I’ve been asked several times, ‘why a Scottish international affairs magazine?’ My answer to this question is simple: ‘Why have we not had a publication like CABLE before now?’

There is much activity, as you would expect, in Scotland’s great universities. But academia still struggles to engage the public, still produces publications and events which will never reach the public. I hope that CABLE’s approach and style – smart but accessible – will bridge the  gap, producing bold intelligent analysis which is also interesting and open to the public.

What makes CABLE distinctly different from other international affairs publications out there?

See above! No-one else is doing what CABLE is doing. We are Scotland’s only dedicated international affairs magazine.

CABLE Magazine burst into the world of current and international affairs publication in July 2017. CABLE being Scottish is a huge unique selling point! Do you feel Scottish political affairs have been accurately reported in the mainstream press in the past?

It’s clear that many Scots have an issue with reporting. Much of the criticisms are clearly based upon constitutional issues. But you also see criticisms over how issues in developing countries are under-reported, and about things such as how much coverage the Royal family receives.

Yes, some of the criticisms are valid – of course they are. Some of the reporting has been poor. But I feel at times that too much deliberateness or malice is read into what is reported. Even excellent journalists and media organisations make bad calls at times, or get things wrong.  And of course, the shrillest critics of the media are often focused on micro-details or are simply responding to reports that conflict with their view of things.

But as with everything in politics, I think it’s important to try to look at the issue from the other side. I think it can be difficult to opine on the big issues in Scotland. There are people who watch every nuance of what you say or write, so many people waiting to stick the knife in.

But let’s not be too myopic about this issue. Much of the criticism we see in Scotland – and, let’s not forget, in the wider UK – is about ‘establishment bias’ and we do see that in spades. Just about every friend I have in other countries tells me that the media is castigated there too: criticisms of an ‘establishment bias’ run heavily through every nation. And that’s as much to do with media ownership and ties between government and business elites as it is editorial frailty or journalistic quality.

And of course, people have responded by seeing the challenge and organising themselves. The so-called ‘new media’ is not new at all as a concept but new media outlets have great potential to tell a different story. Look at The Ferret in Scotland – it is an organisation which is respected and – most importantly – trusted because the people involved are known to have talent and integrity. But like every other media organisation,The Ferret will receive criticism when it reports stuff that some people don’t like. Being criticised doesn’t make you a bad journalist and media outlet – it can mean quite the opposite, in fact. We should remember that.

What does CABLE feel international affairs publications need right now?

Funding. And decent, affordable office space.

*definitely an essential 

What makes Scotland a great platform for international affairs?

Scotland is a small nation which is very political and which is widely known in the world.

We love ‘7 questions’. Is there any significance behind asking politicians just seven questions?

Thank you! Lindsay Hastings is a fine interviewer. And of course, David Pratt’s photos give the feature a great look. No, there’s no significance at all. We simply want to speak to politicians of any party who have a story to tell about their interests or involvement  in international affairs.

Are there any specific themes CABLE Magazine seeks to highlight over time?

We have an eclectic outlook and approach. We try to look ahead to anniversaries, meaningful dates, etcetera, and try to arrange to have articles to publish on the relevant issues. Just like any other publication.  We are very interested in how other small nations work and how they operate internationally. We are also interested in Scottish government external affairs policy, and Scottish-UK issues. Each issue of CABLE reflects an editorial balancing act. On the one hand, we want to publish articles and interviews that you might find an an international affairs magazine published out of Toronto, Cairo, or Helsinki.  So good interesting analysis of events going on across the world. On, the other hand, we are based in Glasgow and we want to have a strong presence of articles and interviews which reflect Scotland’s position and interests. I’d say that that balancing act – being boldly internationalist in outlook whilst also reflecting our Scottish interests – is a strong theme running through CABLE.

The design of CABLE Magazine is as strong and identifiable as the issues discussed within it. How did you settle on the concept we see today?

Through endless debate and several thousand cups of coffee and tea. From the start, we wanted something distinctive and clean. Strong images and a good reading experience for readers. Few colours. Strong visual recognition. But we were also working to a tiny budget so compromises had to be met. We worked with Green Corrie Consultants who put together the site and I think they did a great job.

There are things – many things – that we want to improve and CABLE will get a major design overhaul at some stage but that will have to wait for now.

We’ve seen CABLE Magazine go from strength the strength. What has surprised you most about the response from the public?

To be honest, I don’t think we’ve been that surprised. I’m not surprised that people are embracing a Scottish international affairs magazine. I thought that that interest would be there or I wouldn’t have embarked upon what has been a massive amount of work to develop CABLE. We’ve been heartened by the following we’ve developed on Twitter. We’ve received a cool response from some quarters – I’ll say no more than that – but again, we’re not surprised. And we’ve been criticised, sometimes very rudely, on social media by people using pseudonyms who say that ‘we’re rubbish’ (or words to that effect) and that ‘they know where we’re coming from’. And I’m not surprised at that!

What we’re struck by is that there is a clear appetite for CABLE -not just from the public but also from within the NGO, academic and business community and even from within government. And we’ve been approached for partnerships from East Asia and North America.

Scotland is a highly internationalist country and it now – at last! – it has its own dedicated international affairs magazine.  The challenge for us at CABLE is to turn that interest and enthusiasm into financial income which can sustain something that Scotland really does need.

You’ve gone to optional online subscription – why should people subscribe to CABLE?

CABLE was created to encourage greater analysis of, and debate on, international affairs in Scotland. We want as many people as possible to read our work. To this end, and to ensure that we remain an attractive platform for writers to promote their writing, we maintain open access to our website.

But ‘open access’ shouldn’t be viewed simply as ‘free access’. Producing CABLE is hugely time-consuming and it is costly. We need to generate income to maintain a modest core of staff, and to offer reasonable payment to contributing journalists. It’s important to us that talented people are paid when they exercise their talents on our behalf. CABLE is Scotland’s only international affairs magazine. If people value what we do and want us to continue, they should be as generous as possible in supporting us. That invitation extends to organisations and businesses as well. CABLE is a platform to illuminate what Scotland does as an international actor – that extends to project work and trade. I think that all of Scotland has an interest in seeing a buoyant CABLE.

Will CABLE stay an online publication or will there be a hard copy version in the future?

We are very keen indeed to look at going hard copy. We’ll have to see how things go but we may look at this at some point next year.

What can we say at In/Progress HQ? If you’ve not yet read CABLE Magazine and bought into the infamous and thought provoking .scot way of looking at politics yet, you better.

A huge thankyou to John and the CABLE team for letting us peak through the curtain and learn more about the future of current and international affairs reporting from a Scottish perspective! 

CABLE Magazine will hit your internet again on the 5th of January 2018.

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